Tarzan: Johnny Weissmuller

Johann Peter Weißmüller

Face it. Few of the early, black-and-white Tarzan movies even remotely approach award-winning quality; many of them are absolutely awful. And any resemblance between the multilingual, erudite Tarzan of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ stories and the grunting movie caricature is extremely rare. Nevertheless, the cinematic apeman struck a chord with audiences from the very beginning (1918). But it was Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan in the Depression-wracked 1930s and on into the 1940s that proved most enduring.

Johnny Weissmuller

An MGM studio publicity photo of Johnny Weissmuller in the 1940s. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

Of the many Tarzan movies made since 1918 (authorized and not), the Romanian/Austrian-born muscular Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller appeared in just an even dozen. But despite the numerous other celluloid dramas about the swinging King of the Jungle and the 17 other actors who portrayed him over the years, it is Weissmuller who is still most closely associated with the Tarzan character, just as Maureen O’Sullivan (1911-1998) will forever be identified as Tarzan’s mate, Jane. Few, if any, of the many later Tarzan films can match the character and charm of the Weissmuller-O’Sullivan films.

A Swedish Tarzan
The Austrian/German actor Christoph Waltz (Spectre, Django Unchained, Inglourious Basterds) plays the villain in a new Tarzan movie, starring the Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård in the title role. Jane is played by Australian actress Margot Robbie. A brief plot summary of THE LEGEND OF TARZAN (2016): “Many years after he left Africa behind, Tarzan (Skarsgård) returns to the Congo to serve as a trade emissary, unaware that he is actually a pawn in a Belgian captain’s (Waltz) deadly plot.” The Swedish Tarzan emulates Burroughs’ original, erudite Lord Greystoke rather than Weismuller’s Tarzan. Waltz’s Belgian bad guy character is based on the infamous Leon Rom (1859-1924), an evil agent of the “Butcher of Congo” – Belgian King Leopold II. Released: July 1, 2016.


Tarzan, My Father

Tarzan, My Father
Kindle, Paperback, Hardcover – 2008 edition
by Johnny Weissmuller Jr. – with a foreword by Danton Burroughs
Written by Johnny Weissmuller’s son, this biography is a fascinating portrait of the most beloved Tarzan and a tale of Hollywood at its legendary peak.
BOOK: Get this book from Amazon.com
REVIEW: Tarzan, My Father – Book Review

Weissmuller’s Tarzan was certainly no genius. The “reel” Tarzan hardly spoke at all, much less the English, French, German, Swahili, “Ape” and Arabic of Burroughs’ “real” Tarzan, unless you count “Ungawa!” – a phrase that apparently can mean almost anything. Even O’Sullivan conceded that her onscreen mate wasn’t much of an actor, but Weissmuller had a certain something that kept him in his loinclothed crusader role for a decade and a half.

According to David Fury in Johnny Weissmuller: Twice the Hero, producer Sol Lesser later justified the minimal dialog in his Tarzan films this way: “Tarzan is an international character and about 75 percent of the film grosses came from foreign countries during the time I was producing the films. Their demands were for action, not words. Too much dialogue would only serve to slow up a Tarzan picture and weaken its strongest appeal to the foreign theatergoer – the universal understanding of action and pantomime.” Lesser’s claim seems weak in light of the fact that Hollywood films like Gone With the Wind and others released in the same era did not have to resort to pantomime and grunts to please international audiences.

Following the Tarzan series, he made another 16 Jungle Jim movies (“Tarzan with clothes on”) for Columbia. Weissmuller, using his own name (for licensing reasons) rather than “Jungle Jim” in the last three films of the series, made his final screen appearance (except for some 1970s cameos) in Devil Goddess in 1955.

The Austro-Hungarian Germanic Connection


Johnny Weissmuller’s only son visited Timisoara, Romania in 2002 while tracing his father’s European roots. The Tarzan actor was baptized in this church in 1904. His Austro-Hungarian birthplace was a secret that Weissmuller Senior took to his grave (in Acapulco). Learn more about Johnny Jr.’s European trip in our interview with Johnny Jr. PHOTO courtesy Johnny Weissmuller Jr.

Johann Peter Weißmüller was born on June 2, 1904 in what is now Romania but was in the year of his birth part of the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg empire.[1] The boy who would later become a US Olympic swimming champion and film star – and who would later falsely claim (for Olympic reasons) Windber, Pennsylvania as his birthplace – was the son of ethnic Austrians living in the Banat, a region that, like neighboring Transylvania (Siebenbürgen in German), had been populated with Germanic settlers as early as the 13th century. As late as 1919, the Banat’s population was an ethnic mix of Romanians, Austrians, Serbs and Hungarians, with the German-speaking Austrians comprising 23 percent of the total, second only to the Romanians in number.

Weissmuller was born in the tiny hamlet of Freidorf (“free village” in German, Hungarian Szabadfalu) not far from Timisoara (Timișoara in Romanian; Temeswar or Temeschburg in German; 2012 pop. 306,462). Freidorf long ago became part of the city of Timisoara and now lends its name to one of the city’s 45 quarters or districts. Even today the area around Timisoara is dotted with small towns bearing German names such as Gottlob, Johanisfeld and Liebling, reflecting the German ethnic influence on the region. Weissmuller’s family left Banat for America in 1904, shortly after Johnny’s birth, settling first in Pennsylvania, where many other Austrians and Germans lived (and where brother Peter was born in 1905), and later in Chicago, another Germanic stronghold and the home of Weissmuller’s maternal grandparents. The original German family name Weissmüller translates literally as “white miller” or “wheat miller” (Weizen), a typical Germanic occupational surname, like Miller in English.

Das Banat The Banat/Timisoara Cinematic Connection
Johnny Weissmuller is not the only Hollywood film person to come from Timisoara and the Banat. In addition to Weissmuller, silent-film actor Leo Ditrichstein (1865-1928) and Emmy-award-winning film director Robert Dornhelm (1947- ) were also born in Timisoara. The famous Count Dracula (1931) actor Bela Lugosi (Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó, 1882-1956) was born in what is now Lugoj, Romania, not far from Timisoara, but Lugosi was of Hungarian heritage, not German. The stage and film actress Zita Johann (1904-1993), who appeared in many Hollywood movies, including The Mummy (1932) with Boris Karloff (London-born William Henry Pratt, 1887-1969), was also born near Timisoara. Like Weissmuller, Zita Johann came to America with her family as a young child (in 1911).

Johnny was only seven months old when his family arrived in America. He grew up in German-American communities, first in Pennsylvania and later in Chicago, where he attended parochial and public schools. Although studio publicity and some Weissmuller biographies claim he attended the University of Chicago, this is not true. Weissmuller was probably a high school dropout, leaving school no later than about the time his swimming career went into high gear (10th grade), if not sooner.

A spindly, almost skinny child (but not “sickly” as some bios state), Johnny took up swimming as a boy. At the age of 16 he began training with Illinois Athletic Club swimming coach William Bachrach (“Big Bill”), who helped Johnny reach his Olympic potential. Weissmuller went on to win five Olympic gold medals and many other world and national swimming titles. In 1922 he set a new world record by swimming 100 meters in less than a minute. He won his gold medals in the 1924 (Paris) and 1928 (Amsterdam) Olympics.

So how did the Olympic swimming champion become a Hollywood screen star?

Next | Tarzan: Johnny Weissmuller (2)

When Johnny Weissmuller was born in Austria-Hungary in 1904, the law in the region where he was born required all official documents to be recorded in Hungarian. On his birth certificate the German name “Johann” was thus recorded as “Jonas,” the Hungarian form of John, despite the fact that the Weissmullers were of Austrian, German-speaking heritage.

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“TARZAN” BIOGRAPHIES from Amazon.com


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